A Look Back At 2012
Although the A's saw very good years from a number of players during last season's playoff run, none of those seasons came from their catchers. The A's transitioned from the incumbent veteran Kurt Suzuki to promising rookie Derek Norris, who was acquired in the offseason as a part of the Gio Gonzalez trade with the Washington Nationals.
Suzuki went through drastic transformation as a major leaguer. As a prospect, he was regarded as an offense-first catcher that would need to improve significantly as a receiver and defender in order to stick in the big leagues. His natural athleticism aided him greatly in his five-and-a-half seasons in Oakland. Ironically, he became known for his preparation, ability to handle pitching staffs and athletic ability behind the plate. It was his offense that struggled the most in his time with the A's.
Wear and tear likely played a big role in Suzuki's declining numbers. Much like his predecessor Jason Kendall, Suzuki prided himself on strapping up the armor every day while consistently being among the American League leaders in innings caught. But his on-base numbers dropped in each year since 2008, leading to a dismal start to 2012, when his .218/.250/.286 slash line in 75 games made the $6.45 million due in the last year of his deal unpalatable for A's ownership. He was moved in a post-deadline deal for catching prospect David Freitas, also from Washington.
But pitchers quickly adjusted and his production took a significant hit. From July 4 on, Norris hit just .179/.260/.318 with five homers in 52 games while struggling to adjust to the way he was being pitched. He went 1-for-12 in the playoffs and struggled defensively – an area he should improve upon given his natural ability. His 26 percent caught-stealing rate was in line with the league average and should be considered a positive considering a number of the A's starters' deliberate deliveries from the stretch.
The A's traded for George Kottaras late in July to throw a left-handed hitting catcher into the fold. Although his career average had always been low, Kottaras was getting on base at a very efficient rate of .409 in his 58 games of part-time duty with the Brewers. Those numbers slipped in his backup role with Oakland, but he wound up hitting six home runs and driving in 19 in his 93 plate appearances with his new team. Kottaras threw out just 16 percent of would-be base stealers, however.
Anthony Recker initially served as Suzuki's backup when the season began, but he struggled with his lack of at-bats, hitting just .129 in 13 games. He wound up being sent down to Triple-A Sacramento in late-May, hitting .265/.358/.435 with nine home runs in 52 games before getting traded to the Chicago Cubs, where he finished the season in the big leagues.
Good-bye And Hello
Suzuki's career with Oakland was very similar to Kendall's. They both caught so many innings it took a toll on their offensive numbers and the A's traded them to avoid dealing with their lucrative contracts. Suzki was traded to the Nationals August 3. He went on to play well late in the year, hitting .301/.355/.482 in his last 26 regular season games for the Nationals. He went 4-for-17 in 19 postseason plate appearances.
Acquired for Suzuki, Freitas played very well for Double-A Midland and has shown steady improvement throughout his pro career. Although he doesn't have the same natural power of Norris, Freitas has exhibited good walk-to-strikeout numbers throughout his minor league career and could emerge as an intriguing option in the coming seasons.
The big acquisition that will have major ramifications on the 2013 team is John Jaso. The left-handed hitter is coming off a career year – albeit in limited time – with the Mariners that saw him reach base at a .394 clip in 361 plate appearances. The former 12th-round pick in 2003 was an All-Star caliber player against right-handed pitching, and well below replacement level against lefties. He figures to platoon with the righty-hitting Norris and get extra at-bats as a designated hitter.
Oakland's trade for Jaso falls right in line with their new emphasis on depth and platoon options, while also providing insurance should Norris' 2012 struggles leak into the new season. Jaso has five games of postseason experience with Tampa Bay – where he led off from time to time – and caught Felix Hernandez' perfect game with Seattle a year ago. Starting Jaso against righties and Norris against lefties figures to improve the A's miserable .204/.262/.325 combined slash line from catchers last year.
Bringing in Jaso meant the end of the line for Kottaras' time with the A's. Although he was good against righties in limited at-bats, Kottaras struggled defensively and went hitless in five postseason at-bats. The newly acquired Kansas City Royal was also a significant liability defensively.
After a couple of seasons of jumping Recker back and fourth from the minors, Oakland traded the backstop to the Cubs for 29-year-old catching prospect Blake Lalli. Lalli was released in early November and signed with the Brewers less than two weeks later. Recker was picked up by the New York Mets this off-season and is competing for their back-up catcher job.
The A's signed minor league free-agent Luke Montz fom the Marlins on November 7. Manager Bob Melvin mentioned Montz as a strong candidate as the club's third catcher early this spring, slating him to start the season with Triple-A Sacramento. Oakland also selected Steven Hill in the Rule 5 draft from St. Louis. Hill will likely join Montz in Sacramento and could potentially get some time at first base.
Just before the start of camp, the A's traded top catching prospect Max Stassi to the Houston Astros as part of the Jed Lowrie deal. Stassi was slated to be a non-roster invitee to camp before the trade. The Yuba City native should start the 2013 season at Double-A.
Locks To Make The Team
Barring injury, it's a virtual certainty that the A's break camp with Norris and Jaso as their catchers. Their righty-lefty splits create a solid platoon situation and because 3B Josh Donaldson will be available as an emergency catcher, Jaso could get some at-bats as a designated hitter.
Norris is looking for a bounce-back season after struggling in his rookie campaign. He spent the offseason transforming his body and re-working his swing with a focus on the opposite field. Norris would often let his left hip leak open leaving him vulnerable to the outside pitch. Having Jaso, an accomplished veteran, around should also prove to be valuable to Norris' development going forward.
Favorites For the Final Spots
The A's will only break camp with two catchers, but an injury would put the A's third catcher on the front burner. It appears Montz has emerged in the early going after showing plenty of power in his well-traveled minor league career. In 183 games at the Triple-A level, Montz' .229/.310/.437 line and 31 homers is a testament to his power. Although his on-base clip leaves something to be desired, he posted a 900 and 804 OPS in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
If he's able to regain his approach from 2011 where he reached at a .391 mark with Double-A Jacksonville, Montz will be a solid option for the A's should injuries require them to call someone up from Sacramento.
Battling For A Spot
With Stassi traded, Freitas has emerged as a candidate to play catcher for the A's longterm. After putting up a .333/.392/.524 line in a 20-game stint in the pitcher-friendly Texas League last year, Freitas has set the bar high for himself since joining his new organization.
Freitas hasn't shown the same type of power as Norris or Montz early in his career, but he has progressed as a hitter nicely since being drafted by the Nationals in the 15th-round in 2010. Freitas has a strong build at 6'3'' and 230 pounds, leading to the belief that there's power potential there. Without the power, his on-base numbers have been more than solid. In his three minor league seasons, Freitas has reached at a .398 clip that has been consistent throughout every level.
It's likely Freitas will split time with Montz in Sacramento, meaning he could make a push as the A's third catcher should he continue to progress at the plate. But at just 24, the A's won't likely be in a rush to bring him to the big leagues in an injury pinch. Freitas will get plenty of at-bats for the River Cats to see what they have in him, which could eventually make Jaso or Norris expendable if he's deemed the real deal.
Looking to Make An Impression
Former 6th-round pick Ryan Ortiz will need to redeem himself after a dismal 2012 that included a demotion from Midland to Stockton midway through the season. In 44 games with the Rockhounds, Ortiz hit just .167/.284/.257, leading to his demotion back to A-Ball. There, he bounced back to hit .248/.375/.419 in the offensive-friendly Cal League.
A solid camp will likely put Ortiz back in Double-A to start the season, where he will need to improve his contact rate and defense if he wants to keep progressing through the system. Given how tough the Texas League can be for position players, it isn't completely fair to write a player off after one bad season. But a repeat performance of 2012 would not bode well for Ortiz' future with the organization.
Here For The Future
23-year-old Beau Taylor was the A's fifth-round pick in 2011 and he showed some promise last season despite missing the start of the year with an injury. In just his second season (and first full season) as a pro, he reached Double-A thanks to a .328/.412/.446 slash line in 52 games with Stockton. Taylor found success early on with Midland after his promotion, but he had a poor last month of the season playing against mostly older competition.
Taylor might be the rawest talent of the group, but there's a good amount of upside considering his advanced approach at the plate at his young age. With the departure of Stassi, Taylor figures to get more at-bats with less direct competition around. Taylor is expected to start the year in Double-A and he could challenge for a spot in Triple-A with a start similar to the one he had with Stockton last season.